Language is awesome. We can all agree on that, right?

No, I’m not going to get all dewy eyed and wax poetic on the critical nature of language, how it propelled mankind and womankind forward culturally, how it is essential to our very survival. Nope. Sometimes language is amazing simply for bringing smiles to our faces when it’s used in a funny, clever, mind-teasing way.

So, an Oxford comma walks into a bar.

That’s the start of a list that’s been circulating for years now, but just recently came to my attention and delight. It features various figures of speech and punctuation heading to their favorite pub, and the inventive word wittiness that ensues.

It’s unclear where this list originated. It bears a strong resemblance to the work of linguist Richard Lederer, though it could be a compilation that was crowd sourced and crowd edited to the fine specimen of crowd cleverness it is today.

Regardless, for the next few weeks I will offer up portions of the list for your pleasure. And because, well, I’m a teacher at heart, I’ll throw in my three cents below the list for those readers who aren’t familiar with a particular figure of speech and don’t get all the cleverness.



• An Oxford comma walks into a bar where it spends the evening watching the television, getting drunk, and smoking cigars.

• A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.

• A bar was walked into by the passive voice.

• An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.

• Two quotation marks walk into a “bar.”


• A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.

• Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.

• A question mark walks into a bar?

• A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.

OK, that’s it for this week. Just typing them into this column made me smile again. Did you get them all? I bet you did. But if not, feel free to check out my explanations below. More next week.

By the way, if this inspired you to write your own examples of figures of speech and punctuation walking into a bar, send them to me at my email at the bottom of this column. I’ll print the best ones in a future column.


1. The Oxford comma (also called a serial comma) is the last comma used in a list of things. Is using it the correct thing to do? That depends on whom you ask. Is it necessary? Some say it’s not. But you’ll likely get a different response from Maine’s Oakhurst dairy, which had to shell out millions of dollars to its drivers not long ago when a court ruled that a contract with workers that was missing an Oxford comma failed to differentiate between them and the farm’s packing crew.

2. Most dangling participles, which are clauses that make things confusing because they modify the wrong noun or a missing noun, are completely unfunny, as in: “Walking through the kitchen, the microwave was beeping.” An excellent example of intentional use of a dangling participle is Groucho Marx’s quip, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.”

3. A sentence that uses a passive voice feels like things are going backwards. Passive: “The bar was walked into by the language columnist.” Active voice (which is usually preferred because it requires fewer words and has more power): “The language columnist walked into a bar.”

4. “Oxymoron” comes from the Greek “oksús” (keen) and “mōros” (stupid), so the word oxymoron is its own oxymoron — a combination of two opposites. Favorites include: civil war, bittersweet, working vacation, and jumbo shrimp.

5. When you place something that someone said in quotation marks, is it a quotation or a quote? On the one hand late language maven William Safire asserted that “quote” is a verb and “quotation” is a noun. On the other hand, Reader’s Digest has a page of “Quotable Quotes” every month. Go figure.

6. A malapropism is when someone uses the wrong word — intentionally or not — because it sounds similar to the one they meant to use, often with humorous results. The master of the malapropism has to be the late Norm Crosby (1927-2020). Borrowing heavily from his act, his obituary in the The New York Times noted that “he spoke from his diagram and related many funny antidotes, often to a standing ovulation.” (In case you’re counting, there are three malapropisms in that last sentence and six in the sentence in the list above.)


7. Hyperbole is obvious exaggeration used for effect. You know, ridiculous overstatements not meant to be taken super literally. It’s also called “auxesis,” which comes from the Latin for “growth.” Some hyperbolic statements are: “I could eat a horse,” “This game is taking forever,” and “I’ve got a million things to do today.”

8. The punctuation that ends a sentence that asks a question — the question mark — is thought to have originated from the Latin word quæstio, which means  — surprise — “question.” Quæstio was shortened to Qo, which in turn, evolved into “?”

9. From the Latin “it does not follow,” a non sequitur is a statement that is unrelated to the one that precedes it or is unexpected. Often, it’s just confusing and makes no sense, like the one in the list above. Sometimes, because the second statement is unrelated or unexpected, non sequiturs are used for comic effect. As with comedian Mitch Hedberg’s “I wanted to put up a map on the wall with pushpins in all the places I’ve been, but then I realized I’d have to travel to the top two corners of the map.”

More next week.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at

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